I have a unique opportunity in my profession, which is to rule upon high over my own miniature version of the UN. Okay, so I’m really only an ESL instructor and it's really only a classroom of students from all over the world, but as the professor, I wield my authority respectfully and with great appreciation for what I, too, can learn from my students. Take Israel and Lebanon, for example.
I’m not talking about the nations here but rather of two students in one of my classes – both beautiful, intelligent, and outspoken young women who sit near each other and are, therefore, often made to work together when we do small group activities. They are both worldly women in their own ways: Israel is born of Persian and Libyan parents, while Lebanon is a professional ballet dancer who has lived in Paris. Today in class, they were put together with Nicaragua (another lovely and not-so-shy girl) and Colombia (an attractive and reserved middle-aged woman).
During the activity, these four women made up only one group out of five, but watching them gave me the most food for thought. The activity required the students to work together to rearrange items on a list and divide them into main points and supporting details – a task that would easily eat up 20 minutes of class time. Colombia gracefully sat back as Nicaragua, Israel, and Lebanon strongly but civilly debated the various options.
Israel saw things one way, Lebanon saw things another way (they both were correct), and Nicaragua disagreed with both of them as she firmly and rather confidently stated her position. So adamant was she (and so wrong as it turned out) that Lebanon could only sit back and shake her head, waiting for the opportunity to prove Nicaragua wrong. Israel kindly tried to tell Nicaragua where her reasoning had lost its footing while Colombia opted out of the debate, and it was during that moment I noticed a glint of respect in Lebanon’s eyes. She knew she and Israel were right even though they saw the situation differently, and I think she was proud of the way Israel was trying to logically argue the point, which was a challenge given Nicaragua’s dramatic facial expressions. Israel and Lebanon never teamed up against Nicaragua; they seemed to understand that some battles just aren’t worth fighting...which is when I asked myself why their home countries can’t see things as clearly.
Yes, this is an oversimplification of real-world dilemmas, but for a moment, Lebanon and Israel were on the same page albeit through different viewpoints, and with nothing more than a glance, this was understood. I imagined Lebanon and Israel (who never talk to each other apart from these forced exercises) going out for coffee after class and reveling in their newfound commonality.
Eventually, though, I had to burst Nicaragua’s bubble (because I wasn’t sure how patient Lebanon would really be – she was actually sighing deeply) and tell her she was completely off track. She took it like a trooper and openly listened to Lebanon explain the point. All the while, Israel’s bright smile told Lebanon that she concurred even if she would have expressed it differently.
As we discussed the activity as a class, all eyes turned to the board, where I was outlining the final results, and I felt a bit sad. I wished I could have prolonged the group activity so I could fool myself into believing there was hope in the world simply because two young ladies of such different philosophies had found a common ground. With all that’s going on in Egypt, Tunisia, and North Africa and the Middle East in general, the ESL classroom seems the only safe place for these nations to come together. I’m proud to be part of that, and I will go to sleep tonight thinking about Israel and Lebanon and dreaming about their newfound friendship. I know these girls said nothing to each other when class ended, but it’s my dream. And it all has to start somewhere, doesn’t it?